Brilliance vs consistency: Premiership final will be decided by Northampton and Bath’s contrasting fly-halves

An excellent domestic season has set-up a fitting final with the two playmakers set to star at Twickenham

Harry Latham-Coyle
Saturday 08 June 2024 07:39 BST
Fin Smith will hope to steer Northampton to Twickenham triumph
Fin Smith will hope to steer Northampton to Twickenham triumph (Getty Images)

Sat in the central London offices of Premiership sponsors Gallagher this week, Simon Massie-Taylor cut a contented figure. Twelve months ago in the week of the Premiership final, the English top flight’s chief executive was fretting over how he would deliver the news to stakeholders that he was set to lose a third professional club in a single season – London Irish’s demise impending as Saracens beat Sale at a far-from-full Twickenham after a season where negative noise and news had been the prevailing theme.

Even coverage of that final itself was dominated by the arrival of a protester dusted in orange – although as another Premiership executive joked this week, it did at least get club rugby on the back pages.

There is a better chance of positive headlines this time around. This has been a sterling season to restore faith in the English domestic game, with a captivating Premiership backed up by encouraging performances in Europe. Come the close of the campaign, we have been left with the two best, most complete sides in Northampton Saints and Bath, contesting a final draped and dressed with storylines.

For the first time in a decade, the home of English rugby will be sold out for a decider, pushed over the line by two fervent fanbases. Stadium occupancy and viewing figures are up across the campaign; there is still sorting to be done behind the scenes but there is optimism again around the sport.

“I feel totally different to how I felt this time last year,” stressed Massie-Taylor. “This year has seen a record number of young people turning up to the games at the clubs. Thirteen per cent of our ticket holders for the final are kids. Those things are tracking in the right direction.

Northampton have been transformed into a complete side
Northampton have been transformed into a complete side (Getty)

“The season narrative has been better structured and you can track the impact that has had. We have such a strong product. Is it perfect? No. But the league is alive at the moment and really vibrant.”

For Northampton and Bath, the timing feels right to make their return to this stage. Each has been a study in the construction of a winning culture, with two very different directors of rugby going about things in different ways.

Ten years since being part of the last Saints side to lift this trophy, Phil Dowson has transformed a sometime flaky squad into frontrunners and favourites. Targeted investment into bulking up the playing group, strengthening the scrum and improving the defence under new coach Lee Radford has paid off to add to their attacking excellence.

The Premiership final will be played at a sold out Twickenham
The Premiership final will be played at a sold out Twickenham (Getty Images)

“I think the players were so hungry for it,” Dowson said of his side’s transformation after the semi-final win over Saracens. “They knew [we had to improve] as well. The impact that Lee has had is exceptional in terms of integrating a mindset and also from a technical point of view.

“We’ve really pushed the set-piece both in terms of recruitment and the way we’ve coached it – we looked at the scrum and said we wanted to be better in that space, and you could see some of those results against Saracens.”

It is nearly three decades now since Bath’s last title, but the sixth in an eight-year stretch of superiority over their rivals. When owner Bruce Craig, a long-time fan, purchased the club in 2010, he declared that it would not be long until his side were filling the trophy cabinets again, but the period since has been characterised by flashy signings ultimately becoming squandered stars, and Bath have too often flattered to deceive.

Perhaps Craig’s patience and pounds may finally be about to pay off. South African Johann van Graan has revolutionised the environment, the director of rugby trusting in his players and expecting them to trust in one another. Most have flourished under his direction.

It has helped, of course, to have the best-paid player in English rugby union at his disposal this season. While culture can carry a side a long way, having a player of Finn Russell’s individual brilliance at fly half may well provide the extra edge a champion team generally needs. It is not just the Scot’s attacking gifts that have aided Bath this season but his fresh perspective, plus his attitude and application in defence.

Finn Russell has been influential as a player and leader for Bath this season
Finn Russell has been influential as a player and leader for Bath this season (Getty Images)

“He is an unbelievable rugby player,” Ben Spencer, Russell’s captain and half-back partner, said this week. “There is a calmness about him, a class about him that just oozes throughout the team and he gives boys so much confidence and allows them to be themselves.

“I can’t speak highly enough of Finn. What he has added to this group this season has been unbelievable.”

Russell’s individual duel with near namesake Fin Smith fascinates. The Northampton fly-half has been perhaps the most consistent No 10 in the Premiership, recognised by his rivals as the Rugby Players’ Association’s player of the season. There is maturity beyond the 22-year-old’s years in the manner in which he can manipulate both with boot and ball-in-hand – like Russell, his ability to make sharp, smart decisions moments before taking contact is vital.

Neither will shirk the tough stuff, either. Smith can expect to see plenty of his old Worcester mate Ollie Lawrence rampaging down his channel; Russell will brace for an examination or two as chiropractor Courtney Lawes holds his final Twickenham clinic.

Courtney Lawes plays his final game for Northampton on Saturday
Courtney Lawes plays his final game for Northampton on Saturday (PA Wire)

It may feel like both are well set up to go again next year but that this fixture will provide a fifth different winner in five years is proof enough of how hard sustaining success in the Premiership can be. It makes this an occasion both clubs will be desperate to seize – and one of that all in English rugby will surely enjoy.

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